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Yemen's Presidential Ruling Council: Opportunities and Threats

Hadi's step back leaves newly formed Governing Council facing a crisis that has lasted since 2014
El jefe del nuevo consejo presidencial de Yemen, Rashad al-Alimi

REUTERS/WAEL AL-QUBATI  -   The head of Yemen's new presidential council, Rashad al-Alimi, stands during a session of Yemen's parliament

A new phase begins in Yemen with the appointment of a council that brings together all anti-Houthi political forces.

From the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, in a palatial setting of satin colours, velvet and gold patina, Abd al-Rahman Rabbuh al-Mansur al-Hadi (hereafter Hadi) announced on Yemeni state television his decision to place the authority of Yemen's government on the shoulders of a governing council as of that day. 

Yemen's president-in-exile finally took the plunge on 7 April 2022 and handed over power to a new authority composed of eight politicians, military officers and influential men from the Arabian country, which has been plunged into civil war since 2014.  The decision was immediately applauded by the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sponsors of Yemen's government-in-exile, and leaders of the military coalition that has been fighting the Houthi rebels until the April truce.

El príncipe heredero saudí Mohammed bin Salman recibe a Rashad al-Alimi, presidente del Consejo de Liderazgo Presidencial de Yemen, en Riad, Arabia Saudí, el 7 de abril de 2022 PHOTO/ Bandar Algaloud/Cortesía de la Corte Real saudí
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes Rashad al-Alimi, head of Yemen's Presidential Leadership Council, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on April 7, 2022 PHOTO/ Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of the Saudi Royal Court 

The change comes at a decisive moment. The war appears to be reaching a stalemate. While the Arab coalition manages to make some military advances in the region for the first time in four years and halt the Houthi conquest of Marib, the Houthis respond with missile and drone strikes against the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia responded to the attacks on Jeddah or Abu Dabhi by increasing its bombing of the Yemeni capital of Sana'a, leading to a stalemate, or 'military equilibrium'. Force was not going to be able to unblock the situation. This was followed by the UN-mediated truce, which has now lasted more than two months.

All eyes are now on the new Governing Council and its ability to unblock the political situation in Yemen by bringing together all the country's anti-Houthi forces. Is this the definitive step towards putting Yemen on the road to peace?

Transfer of power

Most analyst groups focusing on the issue - South 24, Crisis Group and the specialised press - agree that the decision has been motivated almost coercively by the Saudi authorities, who have placed Hadi under house arrest and incommunicado following his ouster. While Saudi officials have stated that "Saudi Arabia did not orchestrate Hadi's ouster or threaten to denounce alleged corruption", the Arab coalition made $3 billion in aid available to Yemen's new government following Hadi's announcement.

El jefe del nuevo consejo presidencial de Yemen, Rashad al-Alimi,  durante una sesión del parlamento yemení durante la cual él y los miembros del consejo presidencial prestaron juramento en Adén, Yemen, el 19 de abril de 2022 REUTERS/WAEL AL-QUBATI
The head of Yemen's new presidential council, Rashad al-Alimi in Aden, Yemen April 19, 2022 REUTERS/WAEL AL-QUBATI

The transfer of power, as stated in the official communiqué signed by Hadi, bequeaths all Yemen's presidential powers to the new Governing Council, something that has de facto been made possible thanks to "political expediency", i.e. thanks to the backing of the forces involved in the conflict. The Governing Council has from the moment of signing all powers in Yemen with regard to the defence of the Republic and the foreign policy of the State.

 De jure the legality of the Saudi move could be in contradiction with Yemen's battered constitution, according to Zaid Al-Ali, senior adviser for International IDEA, who specialises in constituent processes. "Does this decision to transfer presidential power carry any constitutional and legal weight in Yemen? The answer seems to be no," says Zaid Al-Ali on the social networking site Twitter. Hadi's presidential decisions have been bypassing the constitution for several years. The same transfer of power decree signed by Hadi on 7 April ends by clarifying that "any article of Yemen's constitution that contradicts the decree becomes null and void". 

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is not the only actor in the international community that has applauded the change of power in Yemen. Turkey has also welcomed this new step, as has the UN Security Council and the special mission for Yemen. "The assumption of responsibilities - in line with this transfer of power - by the Yemeni government's Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) reflects a broader set of political actors," the UNSC press release clarifies.

El enviado especial de la ONU, Hans Grundberg, da una rueda de prensa en el aeropuerto internacional de Saná antes de su salida de la capital yemení, el 13 de abril de 2022. - Grundberg visitó la capital yemení, controlada por los rebeldes, tras el alto el fuego del 2 de abril, que las partes beligerantes del país se han acusado mutuamente de violar AFP/MOHAMMED HUWAIS
UN Special Envoy Hans Grundberg at a press conference in Sana'a April 13, 2022 AFP/MOHAMMED HUWAIS

The Governing Council

Yemen's new highest power body is made up of eight men from different backgrounds, but chosen by consensus by the forces that most closely support Yemen's government side. It is accompanied by a consultative council composed of nearly 50 other names from Yemen's political, business and military communities. 
 
- Rashad Al-Alim
is the head of the Governing Council.  He is a veteran and established political figure in Yemen, with strong ties to Saudi Arabia. He was previously an advisor to Hadi and will serve in the Governing Council as a 'primus inter pares'. His political career in high places began when he was interior minister in the 2000s. According to the AP, Al-Alim also has strong ties to the Islah political party, the Yemeni affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Sultan Al Aradah also sits on the Governing Council. He is the governor of Marib province, one of the most important provinces in the country for its energy resources. According to a profile of him by journalist Nada Al-Taher for The National News, Al Aradah has been a born leader since his birth into one of Marib's most important tribal families. He has been noted for his effectiveness in resolving disputes between tribes and political factions at the local and regional levels. These qualities are highly appreciated in view of the Governing Council's intention to reach a pact with the Houthis to end the war. 
- Brig Al Zubaidi, senior military officer in Yemeni aviation. He led the fighting in the last civil war in southern Yemen during Saleh's rule. After his defeat in the battle of Aden, Al Zubaidi went into exile in Djibouti until he returned two years after the end of the civil war in 1994. Since then he has become a spokesman for the autonomist movement in southern Yemen. Between 2015 and 2017 he was Governor of Aden, the country's main port. Since 2017 he has been the president of the South Yemen Transitional Council. 
- Tariq Saleh, nephew of President Abdullah Saleh, is the leader of the National Resistance Forces, an armed militia unaffiliated with former President Hadi's government-in-exile. 
- Abdurahman Al Muharrami Abu Zaraa, commander-in-chief of the Giants Brigade, another anti-Houthi armed militia of between 20,000 and 30,000 troops, making it the largest irregular armed group in Yemen, with military and financial support from the United Arab Emirates. 
- Abdullah Al Alimi Bawazeer, a member of the Islamist Al-Islah party, a local affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Until the formation of the council he had been a member of Hadi's cabinet. 
- Faraj Salmin al-Bahsani is the governor of Hadramaut province and an officer in Yemen's regular army. He belongs to the General People's Congress political formation. Hadramaut is the largest province in Yemen.
- Othman Hussein Megali is a deputy in Yemen's Assembly and a tribal chief in Saada, the northern province with a strong Houthi presence since the start of the civil war.

En esta foto de archivo tomada el 19 de junio de 2019 los yemeníes se manifiestan durante una protesta contra la suspensión de la ayuda proporcionada por el Programa Mundial de Alimentos frente a la oficina de las Naciones Unidas en la capital Sanaa AFP/ MOHAMMED HUWAIS
Yemenis demonstrate during a protest against the suspension of aid provided by the World Food Programme outside the UN office in the capital Sana'a AFP/ MOHAMMED HUWAIS

Changes in the future

Rumours and expectations of a change in the leadership of the government-in-exile are not new. As early as 2020, analysts from the Saana Center, South 24 and Crisis Group were already talking about a total reform of the government's power structure. As Crisis Group senior analyst Peter Salisbury explains, the anti-Houthi camps concluded that maintaining the status quo of the Hadi government in exile was not a viable option. "It was generally recognised that Hadi exercised little or no control, or even influence, over most of the major anti-Houthi groupings now represented on the council", Salisbury notes in his analysis 'Behind the Yemen Truce and Presidential Council Announcements'. Only UAE interventions were able to bring order between Yemen's different political factions. Within the anti-Houthi factions, Yemen is mainly divided between north and south, with the southern part being traditionally secessionist, since the civil war of the 1990s. Aden versus Sana'a.

The first challenge facing the Governing Council, according to Maged Al-Madhaji, senior analyst at the Saana Center, will be to govern, fight and negotiate. Two scenarios would open up in front of the Governing Council. The first would see a long and stable truce flourish during which negotiation with the Houthis allows for a starting point to be established subject to conditions favourable to both sides. In the second scenario, a failed truce would lead to a return to hostilities and a worsening of Yemen's already dire economic and humanitarian conditions. The 'military balance' following the bombings in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, as well as the GCC's willingness to end the armed conflict, point hopefully to the first scenario, that of negotiations. According to al-Madhaji, even the Houthis realise that a military solution in Yemen is no longer viable and cannot bring progress to negotiations. 

El mundo no debe perder de vista la difícil situación de las personas que viven en la guerra que dura años en Yemen, dijo el viernes 11 de marzo de 2022 Katharina Ritz, jefa de la delegación del Comité Internacional de la Cruz Roja en Yemen, instando a seguir ayudando a la nación más pobre de Oriente Medio mientras la guerra en Ucrania acapara la atención del mundo AP/HAMO MOHAMMED
The plight of people living through Yemen's years-long war AP/HAMO MOHAMMED

On the other hand, another risk for the Governing Council is repeating the same mistakes as previous formations in Yemen. In Yemen's history there have been several Governing Councils that have repeatedly failed. This new one will have to remain cohesive despite having different political groups within it, and keep the different currents within these groups at bay.
 
According to Maysaa Shuja Al-Deen, an analyst at the Sanaa Center, the choice of Rashad al-Alimi is an "interesting one". His political experience and connections should help him manage conflicts within the Governing Council. The government's move to Aden, where they have been sworn in, should also play into the hands of the new ruling body. Despite being appointed and announced outside Yemen, all of its members have always been very close to the ground and operations in the country. 

To achieve stability among the anti-Houthi forces, the removal of Hadi's prime minister was key. South Yemen's political groups feel much more secure now, in addition to having a seat on the Security Council. 

The director of the South24 think tank, Yaqub Al-Sufyani, told Al-Arab media that Yemen's economic conditions are also key to achieving cohesion in the anti-Houthi camp. According to Al-Sufyani, getting all revenues from government-controlled regions properly regularised through the central bank in Aden is an essential condition. "Economic dilemmas can significantly undermine the consensus of the Governing Council," Al-Sufyani said in the same interview. 

Un camión de combustible sale del puerto de Hodeida, en el Mar Rojo, en el oeste de Yemen, el 13 de abril de 2022 PHOTO/AFP
A fuel truck leaves the Red Sea port of Hodeida in western Yemen on April 13, 2022.
PHOTO/AFP

On the economic side still, seven years of misrule have created a large backlog of unresolved files, including numerous non-payments to civil servants and service companies, which have negatively affected the efficient functioning of the country. 

Security files have also suffered significantly in recent years under the Hadi administration. Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Daesh are at large in some regions of southeastern Yemen, without encountering strong opposition from pro-government forces. 

Military analyst Al-Awbali, interviewed by Al-Arab, stresses the need for centralised military coordination and the implementation of effective military intelligence, which would save Yemen's military expenditure by up to 50 per cent. "Yemen's national army suffers from corruption and disorganised management by the Ministry of Defence and its affiliated departments, as factions and knots of power have formed within the ministry itself, its branches etc...". Al-Awbali goes on to explain. 

With these goals and challenges, but also with some very positive points compared to the previous government, the Council formed in April has a tough task to bring peace to Yemen. Fortunately, it can be expected that due to the above-mentioned conditions, the truce will hold and both the Houthis and the Arab coalition will lay down their arms. Rashad Al-Alim's consensus and leadership should allow for a return to order in the government camp and the sharing of power previously held only by the Islah party, in order to favour the other formations and find solutions that suit the entire political and tribal spectrum.